The MMA landscape is changing more and more rapidly every year. Between increased drug testing, the ever-dominant injury bug, retirements, rising stars, and fighters trying out different weight classes, it’s hard to keep up anymore. Constant change has become the status quo, and many title belts have been changing hands left and right.
On the outside, the MMA world looks like total chaos. However, when someone gets a chance to take a more granular view, it turns out some things are still the same. There are individuals and teams all over the world with one focus: being the best in the game. Rafael Lovato Jr. and his team of coaches, training partners and students are a great example.
Lovato was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu student as a teenager and went on to become one of the greatest American competitors of all time. He’s now a 4th degree black belt who has competed in BJJ as recently as March of this year. However, he is also an undefeated MMA fighter who is set to face Bellator middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi at Bellator 223 on Saturday in London for a long-awaited title challenge.
After becoming one of the first Americans to win the IBJJF World Championships as a black belt and going on to win several gold medals since, Lovato transitioned into the MMA arena in 2014. He has won nine fights in a row. This was not a huge change for him, as he is used to being one of the best martial artists in the world. His bout with 53-fight veteran Mousasi for the belt is inciting change in the MMA world, but it’s all just part of a divine plan for Lovato.
“It’s an amazing feeling to fight for the title against arguably one of the top three or four guys of my weight class,” Lovato told Combat Press. “He’s a legend. He’s been in the game and fought everybody in all of the organizations, pretty much. For me, I’ve been saying the whole time that it’s my destiny to face someone like that. It’s the biggest fight of my career, for the belt, against the biggest opponent possible. It’s just exciting.”
There have been countless opponents throughout Lovato’s extensive grappling career who have considered it an honor just to be able to share the mat with this living legend, which makes it almost humbling to hear him hold Mousasi in a similar regard. Yet, they are both deserving of the same respect and admiration.
Mousasi has been a pro fighter since 2003. The UFC veteran has amassed a 25-2-1 record with notable wins over Hector Lombard, Melvin Manhoef, Mark Hunt and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza before he even made his Strikeforce debut in 2008. In his first Strikeforce fight, he knocked out Renato “Babalu” Sobral for the light heavyweight title in one minute. This all happened before simultaneous runs through Strikeforce and Dream, plus a tour through the who’s who of the UFC. Now, through just three Bellator fights, Mousasi has already won and defended the middleweight title while taking his winning streak to eight fights in a row.
Lovato and Mousasi were originally set to face off at Bellator 214 in January. About five weeks prior, Mousasi had to pull out due to a back injury. Lovato was pretty deep into camp when the cancellation was announced. With no immediate new date announced for the contest, he had to keep himself busy.
“After the first fight got canceled, it was tough,” Lovato admitted. “I had already done 60 percent of the camp. I was feeling great. Obviously, it’s hard to be training over the holidays, but I had everything already set. I had guys at my house from Brazil. I was ready to go to Brazil, and everything was on schedule. All that got put on hold.
“I didn’t know the extent of his injury. I didn’t know what the plan was. I kept keeping myself ready, because what if they called me and said, ‘We’re going to put you guys on the next card in March’? I did a quick couple vacations — because, my body, I was already in a hard camp — then I came back, and all of January and February, I was sparring. I was still training and still getting ready, because I didn’t know when I was going to get the call. I finally got word that it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.”
For a guy that has spent a lifetime training and competing, it was definitely an unwelcome change of pace to now be on the bench for five months since his last outing, when he submitted John Salter at Bellator 205 in September. Lovato was in great condition and didn’t want to get cold, so he started making some calls. He was able to set up back-to-back grappling matches at Fight 2 Win 104 on March 9 and Polaris 9 only six days later.
“I was in good shape, so I talked to Fight 2 Win, and they had an event that was good timing for me,” Lovato explained. “Then, just a few weeks before Polaris, I let them know it didn’t look like I was fighting any time soon and I could potentially do their March event if they were interested, because I had been on some of their past events. They needed an opponent for Jake [Shields], so it was great for them too. It was perfect timing.
“So, all of that came together. It was already February, and I wanted to make this stuff happen in March, so I could stay busy. Like I said, I was in great shape. I wasn’t focused on grappling, but I had a few weeks, or a month, to get ready. I did those and then right as I was getting ready to go to Polaris, they messaged me about this event, Bellator London. It was funny, because Polaris was in London, so I was home and then I had to go back for the press conference in London. And, now I’m going back again. So, in this year alone, I’m having three trips to London in just six months. London is an amazing city, and I have no complaints about going back there.”
London is the place to be for Lovato fans. After he dropped the Fight 2 Win grappling match to Yuri Simoes, he flew out to England and picked up the win over Shields. Now, he will fight for the Bellator middleweight strap there this weekend at Bellator 223.
“I’ve been training for this thing for six months now,” Lovato said. “I couldn’t feel more ready at this point. I had a couple weeks at home. I also did a week in Austin at the Onnit facility there — a lot of people to mix it up with there. Then, I went to Brazil for three weeks in Curitiba, like I always do. I had a really, really great time there. It was awesome — great training and lots of hard rounds. Then, I finished things off here at home. I brought one of my best training partners from there back home with me. Xande Ribeiro is also here with me now, finishing things off.”
Lovato headed to London last week with his team in tow. His primary Muay Thai coach, Mauricio “Veio” Amado, has been with him for nearly three months, traveling all over. Ribeiro, movement coach Cameron Shayne, Veio’s brother Andre “Dida” Amado, and wrestling coach Brian Picklo have all played their parts in preparing the well-rounded martial artist for the battle of his life against Mousasi, who may or may not take the fight to the mat against the seasoned grappler.
“I don’t think he’s going to initiate the takedown, unless it’s the end of a round and he just wants to put a stamp on the round,” Lovato said, “but I don’t think he’s going to be intimidated by my ground game. He’s fought good guys on the ground before. He’s fought Jacare. He’s fought [Chris] Weidman. He’s always held his own and done pretty good. He beats a lot of people with his own jiu-jitsu. I don’t think he’ll necessarily shy away from it. He can make the adjustments. He’s just been in there with so many people — so many tough guys — that he can see things.
“He can step back and sort of think of past fights or match-ups that he’s had and understand how to make adjustments. He’s a very smart fighter, and he’s complete all around. His experience is his greatest strength.”
Lovato is more than ready for a changing of the guard at the top of Bellator’s middleweight division. However, one thing will always remain the same. He is a lifelong martial artist who loves challenging himself and proving he is the best at his craft. He conquered the world of grappling, and now it’s time for the 35-year-old killer to stand on top of a different mountain.
“I feel like it’s my time,” said Lovato. “I feel like all of this has come together in a way that couldn’t even be written out. It just feels so much like destiny. This is my life’s work, and people in MMA still haven’t seen much of me yet. I’m a dangerous fighter, and I can finish anybody. This is the biggest test, but I have a lifetime worth of experience competing, and I know what it’s like to be in it. I don’t think there’s been a moment when I’ve felt like I’m an amateur in any of my fights. I just feel like it’s my time. It’s time to shake things up a little bit out there and put a stamp on my legacy.”